- Boardwalk Empire - This is probably a case of high expectations working against a good but not quite stellar show. Boardwalk Empire is HBO's latest prestigious, no expense spared production. Plus, it's a period piece about an important time and place in American history (Atlantic City in 1920, the eve of Prohibition, when the city becomes a gateway for bootlegged Canadian alcohol). Plus, it's a crime drama. How can one help but expect a cross between Deadwood and The Sopranos? Perhaps inevitably, Boardwalk Empire fails to live up to such a fantastical hope, but even taken on its own merits, it falls a little short of what it might be. The historical recreation feels a little honky-tonk. This might have something to do with the period--the 20s are a weird decade to get a handle on, a period in which the 20th century finally shook off the last vestiges of the 19th but still hadn't arrived at the stylistic and cultural conventions that would define it--and the setting--a resort town naturally gravitates towards the gaudy and kitsch. But what's missing from Boardwalk Empire is the magic that Deadwood achieved seemingly without trying, of making the visual tropes of a by-then hoary and cliché-ridden genre not only fresh, but lived-in and immediate. Boardwalk Empire feels historical, and thus remote from present-day concerns, in a way that Deadwood never did.
This is particularly strange when one considers how relevant the series's topic should be. The main character is Enoch "Nucky" Thompson (Steve Buscemi), a local politician and, as one of his lieutenants describes him, half a gangster, thoroughly comfortable with graft, election-rigging, and vice, but still a kind, warm-hearted man. As the person in control of the Atlantic City waterfront, he initially sees Prohibition as an opportunity to become rich, as he ups the price of now-illegal liquor and creates supply lines to New York and Chicago. His new partners, however, are not your friendly neighborhood crooks, enablers of the sins of the flesh who are kind to women and small children, but serious bad guys, with whom Nucky may be too soft to deal. This should be a familiar story, in an era in which the lessons of Prohibition have been so thoroughly ignored, but instead it feels familiar in all the wrong ways--we know where Nucky and the rest of America are going, how this ill-conceived and high-handed attempt at social engineering will instead create and help to cement the power of multiple organized crime empires that will adversely affect the lives of millions of people. At least in its pilot, Boardwalk Empire feels as if it's just taking us through that familiar story one beat after another, rather than using a historical backdrop to tell a new, or perhaps timeless, one. It could be that that's what the show is interested in doing, but so far it seems to be indulging in some of historical fiction's worst excesses--an infatuation with period detail and a sentimental treatment of the past. When Nucky's reckless protege steals a shipment of whiskey--with the help of a young Al Capone--and kills its couriers, it feels less like a horrible murder than a historical reenactment, too cute and dressed up to be truly affecting. For all that it's well done--and despite Buscemi's strong presence at its center--so far that's my reaction to Boardwalk Empire as a whole.
- Lone Star - Another case of a show undermined by high expectations, though this time I'm having trouble seeing where those expectations were coming from. EW's Michael Aussiello and The AV Club's Todd VanDerWerff have both called Lone Star the best pilot of the fall, and NPR's Linda Holmes has called its abysmal ratings--which have resulted in the first cancellation of the fall--a sign of the American public's ingratitude and lack of appreciation for cable-style quality shows, and a sure guarantee that networks will stop trying to make them. But a network attempt to ape cable dramas is exactly what Lone Star is, with all the flaws and compromises that implies. The main character, Bob, is a con man who has been working an oil scam in two Texas towns: Midland, where he has taken in his sweet, working-class girlfriend's parents and all their friends, and Huston, where he's wormed his way into the confidence of an oil tycoon, in part by marrying his daughter. Raised into grifting by his father, Bob is still partnered up with him, but growing more guilty and more determined to stop the people he's come to love from being destroyed by his actions, and he ends the pilot by breaking with his father and deciding to turn his lies into truth--while concealing his double life and remaining married to, and deeply in love with, two women.
Lone Star is well made, but at almost every turn it's possible to see that where a cable series would be willing to challenge its audience, this show has been made less threatening, and its rough edges filed off. So Bob is sweet and tormented (and James Wolk does a good line in staring soulfully at the camera), still under his father's thumb but really an idealistic and loving person determined to do right. There's no examination in the pilot of his complicity in his actions, of the inherent dishonesty that would have to lie at the very heart of his character in order for him to have so thoroughly deceived everyone who loves and trusts him, and at no point are we invited to feel anything but sympathy and pity for him. Similarly, his two love interests are both adorable to the point of flawlessness, his father is not just manipulative but emotionally abusive, repeatedly telling Bob that no one will ever really know him or love him, and his Huston wife's rich family are slimy and distrustful. So no, Lone Star was probably never going to be challenging, quality drama, but it might have been a good high-concept soap, focusing on familial and business intrigue as Bob and his father try to outsmart one another and Bob's two lives come close to colliding. Instead, the pilot and second episode spend more time and energy on melodrama than they do on con stories, and it's therefore a little hard to see what we missed with the show's lightning-quick cancellation.
- Detroit 1-8-7 and Hawaii Five-0 - There probably aren't two more different shows starting out on TV this fall, but Detroit 1-8-7 and Hawaii Five-0 have two things in common (three, if you count having numbers in their names): they're both cop shows, and they both take place outside the New York/Los Angeles/Chicago trifecta that dominates the form. In both cases, the glimpse the shows grant of a new, different location, helps somewhat to elevate them above, respectively, a flawed pilot and a moronic premise. Detroit 1-8-7 is aiming at the thoughtful grittiness of respected cop shows like Homicide: Life on the Streets and, more recently, Southland. A strong, and refreshingly diverse, cast helps to bring it part of the way there, but the pilot is undone by its reliance on gimmicks. The show is filmed like a mockumentary, but instead of stressing the show's realism and immediacy, the style calls attention to Detroit 1-8-7's falseness by being entirely unbelievable--at certain points that camera follows the policemen from outside of a moving car, or dodges bullets being shot at them, and there's never a sense that the characters are aware that they're being filmed and editing their behavior accordingly. The writers also use the mocumentary format to catch up particularly slow viewers, inserting titles that differentiate the two cases being investigated, and even helpfully informing us that we are in the middle of a hostage situation. This seems out of step with the kind of challenging, thought-provoking TV the show seems to be aiming at. Another flaw is the show's unfortunate tendency to lapse into over-the-top humor, as when a rookie detective who has just chased down a suspect stops to take a call from his pregnant wife and begins questioning her about her contractions as his suspect gets away, or when the enigmatic Detective Fitch (Michael Imperioli) interrogates a suspect by staring him down until the street-tough hoodlum starts crying about his poor life choices and calling for his mother. In general, in fact, I wonder whether Detroit 1-8-7 isn't putting too many eggs in Imperioli's basket, setting him up as the House of detectives--brilliant at his job, but a completely non-functional human being--which would, again, clash with the show's supposed realism. All told, then, I'm not sure what show Detroit 1-8-7 is trying to be, and I'm not sure the show itself knows, so it's a good thing that it has the setting of Detroit, and its much-publicized troubles, to fall back on as it settles into itself.
Hawaii Five-0, meanwhile, is about as far from gritty as it is possible to get. The pilot is the best made, most enjoyable, and most ludicrous I've seen this season, sharply paced but moronically plotted. It starts with Naval officer Steve McGarrett (Alex O'Loughlin, demonstrating significantly more charisma and screen presence here than he did in Moonlight and Three Rivers put together) being recruited by the governor of Hawaii, who gives him carte blanche to rid the island of an arms dealer who has recently killed McGarrett's father, and I think that's probably enough plot description to express just how ridiculous this show's premise is. What's important is that McGarrett teams up with a disgraced former cop (Daniel Dae Kim), a New Jersey policeman who moved to Hawaii to be closer to his daughter (Scott Caan), and a green but tough rookie (Grace Park, already paraded around in her underwear twice), and together they fight crime, but in a new and totally awesome way that will probably involve lots of explosions and shoot-outs, even if it's not always the guy who directed the first two Underworld movies behind the camera. It's a bit difficult to try to sum up my reaction to Hawaii Five-0, because on the one hand, this is a very impressive pilot that gets a lot done--introducing the characters and their sad backstories, putting them together, building the fractious but increasingly respectful partnership between McGarrett and Caan's character, tracking down the arms dealer, and shooting and blowing a lot of shit up--without ever feeling rushed or overstuffed. On the other hand, this is such a stupid show. Only two things keep Hawaii Five-0 from sinking under the weight of its stupidity--the sheer fun of the pilot, and the fact that it manages to establish Hawaii as a foreign place where the rules, and the people, are different (this also goes a tiny way towards explaining the show's reactionary slant, with McGarrett forming his team with the express purpose of hunting bad guys without having to deal with the pesky impediments of due process and civil rights, though the scene in the show's second episode in which he dangles a suspect off the roof of a hotel is hard to take). Neither of these are enough to keep me watching the show, but successful popcorn entertainment is not easy to pull off (as so many other, less engaging pilots this fall have demonstrated), so I can't help but respect Hawaii Five-0 for achieving its goals.
- My Generation - From the best pilot of the season to the worst (silly me for thinking that there was nowhere to sink from Outlaw). My Generation is another mockumentary, alleging to reunite with nine twenty-eight year olds who in 2000 were interviewed by a documentary crew on the eve of their high school graduation. In theory, the concept has some potential, though perhaps not as an open-ended series. But the execution is flawed on just about every level. The characters are a bunch of stereotypes who project their issues onto the screen with neon signs. The queen bee clearly doesn't love her rich kid husband, which we know because she can't remember how long they've been married and, in full sight of the camera, all but propositions a former classmate. Her husband, meanwhile, is still hung up on his high school sweetheart, which we know because he wistfully watches their old videos and squirms uncomfortably whenever she's mentioned. The former nerd is now a creep who lusts after his married, pregnant best friend (which we know because he ogles her in the nude), whom he has invited to live in his house while her suspicious husband is away in Iraq, and who longs for children of his own only to discover that he is infertile. None of them seem to be aware of how much they're exposing to the camera, nor to possess the basic self-editing facilities that you'd expect from a normal, 21st century adult trained by and accustomed to reality TV--which means that the writers don't have to work hard, or at all, to expose their characters' secrets and hidden desires. What's most unbelievable, and most damning, about My Generation, is that all the characters are still hung up on what happened to them in high school, that their high school friends, girlfriends, boyfriends, and crushes still loom gigantically in their minds, even at the tail end of their twenties. We all know that American TV has an unhealthy obsession with high school, but it usually expresses this by setting an unreasonable number of shows in high school as it's happening, not by pretending that high school is something you never get over--a proposition that I believe most adults would find both terrifying and pathetic.
- The Event - Last week, after watching the pilot for The Event, I decided to hold off from writing about it until I'd seen the second episode, because clearly the show wasn't done setting up its story, which involves the kidnapping of a young woman on vacation so that her father, an airline pilot, can be forced to fly a plane into a house in which the president is staying, and a decades-old conspiracy to conceal the existence of nearly a hundred aliens (more or less--the exact nature of these beings is clearly one of those mysteries that the show is going to draw out for a while) who have been held prisoner by the US government since crash-landing in Alaska in 1944. The second hour, however, does more of the same, frenetically shifting between past and present as it establishes both the series's backstory and its ongoing storyline, in which a previously hidden faction of the aliens begins to take violent action against humanity. This is clearly the format that the show is going to take--enormous amounts of backstory combined with a fast-paced but opaque present day storyline focused on characters, such as the boyfriend of the kidnapped girl (Jason Ritter, who is usually quite good but falls curiously flat here), who have no idea what is going on and are just reacting to one crisis after another. Which means that the comparisons to Lost--to which The Event is yet another wannabe successor--are entirely off-base. Lost didn't have an elaborate backstory. Its early episodes set up cryptic mysteries but were in no hurry to resolve them--mainly, as we now know, because the writers had no particular solution in mind. The show that The Event actually recalls is Heroes, which like it was fast-paced and threw huge chunks of information at the audience on a weekly basis. This would be a red flag even if The Event were half as good as Heroes was in its first season, but the show lacks the superhero series's irresistible hook and emotional punch. Hereos was never great TV--even at its best it was indifferently written and acted--but it knew how to grab an audience, an ability that The Event seems to lack. It moves as fast as Heroes did, but is nowhere near as compelling, neither in its story nor in its characters. Without that ineffable secret ingredient, there doesn't seem to be much here to watch for.
- Undercovers - J.J. Abrams goes back to the spy game, this time with a Mr. and Mrs. Smith-inspired series about a pair of married spies (Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw) brought back in after five years' retirement. The series jettisons both Alias's convoluted (and eventually nonsensical) mythology and its angsty tone, and both of these choices seem like good things until one realizes that, one, Undercovers is a comedy, and, two, the closest thing to a joke in the pilot is a (male) junior spy who fawns over Kodjoe to an almost romantic degree and considers Mbatha-Raw a distraction. There are other quips and witticisms, and the two leads have a good patter, but there aren't nearly enough proper gags, or any laugh-out-loud moments, to justify just how frothy this show is. That frothiness is also expressed in the almost perfunctory way in which the leads get back on the horse. There's never a sense that they are bored or unhappy in their lives as humble caterers (who live in a palatial and luxuriously decorated home that is extreme even by the standards of TV lifestyle inflation), or that becoming spies again reintroduces a spark that was missing from their lives. Though the characters tell us that they found it difficult to work as spies after they fell in love, we get no real sense of why they quit espionage, and why they want to go back. And that's really what's missing from Undercovers--the thrill of living on the edge, and the exhilaration of falling in love. It's a surface show, and that surface is nowhere near slick and exciting enough to justify watching. If you want Alias without the angst or mythology, I suggest USA's Covert Affairs--which, incidentally, gives its female lead a lot more to do, and makes her a lot more kickass, than Undercovers does.
- No Ordinary Family - This is a series that starts out with the deck stacked decidedly against it. Superheroes, and particularly the superhero origin story, have been hot for a while, which means both that there's a wealth of material that any new iteration is inevitably compared to, and that the audience is a little fatigued by the subject. Even worse, the show, which sees a typical family gaining superpowers after taking an impromptu swim in a South American river, calls to mind two very specific points of comparison: on the one hand, Heroes, the last television version of the superhero story whose protracted devolution into a shadow of its early success was only mercifully cut short last spring, and on the other hand, The Incredibles, easily the best superhero story of the last decade and a work to which few television series of any stripe could hope to be favorably compared with. No Ordinary Family doesn't overcome these hurdles in its pilot episode. In fact, it proceeds with the kind of easygoing glibness that suggests that its creators are, in fact, unaware of just what a tough task they've set themselves, and think they can just walk themselves to an easy victory because, hey, everyone loves superheroes, right? It's a slow, indulgent hour that hits so many familiar, if not hoary, beats that one almost suspects the writers of deliberate, self-aware irony when they begin it with patriarch Michael Chiklis explaining, to an unseen interviewer (a device used, of course, by The Incredibles), that his story is unusual and doesn't start the way his listener might expect.
As the hour draws on it becomes harder and harder to gauge whether No Ordinary Family's creators are unaware of how well-trodden the path they're going down is, or whether they think it truly doesn't matter that they're bringing nothing new to such a frequently-told story. Either way, the result is thoroughly unexciting, mainly because it differs from The Incredibles in one crucial way. The Parrs were superheroes who had been forced to assume the guise of an ordinary family, and who, though they accepted their new roles with varying degrees of grace, were always wistful for that extraordinary life they'd left behind. The fact that they were not ordinary, and were in fact somewhat disdainful of ordinariness, was the point of the film (and the source of its uncomfortable subtext). No Ordinary Family's Powells, meanwhile, are ordinary people who have not yet become superheroes (only Chiklis's character fights crime in the pilot, and is still ambivalent about doing so). Which means that the pilot is mostly concerned with the family's mundane problems--the Powells' strained marriage, their kids' issues with boyfriends and learning disabilities. In good hands even this tired material could have been made interesting, but again, this is an incredibly lazy pilot, and neither the writing nor the actors seem to be working very hard to sell their familiar plotlines. It's almost insulting how clearly No Ordinary Family expects to win its audience over with a concept, not with execution, and I for one have no interest in rewarding that belief.
Friday, October 01, 2010
Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2010 Edition, Part 2
After the appetizer, the deluge. This post doesn't even cover all of the shows that premiered in the last week. It leaves out the interchangeable lawyer shows (The Defenders, The Whole Truth), the forgettable cop shows (Chase, Blue Bloods, Law & Order: Los Angeles), and the lamentable comedies (Better With You, Raising Hope, Running Wilde). Which is not to say that the shows I am going to write about have won my heart, or are even going to get the chance to do so. Though I will probably keep watching at least a few of these to see if they get better (and am still watching Nikita for the same reason, though increasingly asking myself why I bother), there's been, as yet, no Good Wife this season, no show that came out the gate completely irresistible (though Terriers, which has maintained its promising blend of well-crafted characters and slightly sleazy mysteries into its third episode, comes closest).